Darren Williams is on a mission. As Fortnum's tea buyer, he took charge of Fortnum’s famous tea range a few years ago, and set out to refine and improve every part of the range, from the famous blends to the online tea counter. With new and exciting teas arriving all the time, Fortnum's has become the place to go, whether you're a tea beginner or a connoisseur.
The backbone of Fortnum’s tea range is, of course, the famous blends – Royal Blend, Classic Earl Grey, Breakfast Blend and the like. They are popular with once-a-year visitors and regular customers alike, and a tin of Royal Blend or Smoky Earl Grey can be found in a fair few kitchens across the world. Although the flavours have to stay the same, there was nevertheless room for Darren to do some work. ‘I tried to keep them as they are, as people love their favourite blend and don’t want it to change, especially if they’ve been drinking it all their lives,’ he says. ’But flavours vary, as tea is a live product – so while I have to maintain our heritage, I also have to make sure that the quality is consistent every year. So I make fine adjustments and use the best teas I can – it’s the same flavour, it just tastes better.’
Teas for the connoisseur
With the blends well established, that left Darren free to work on the rest of the range of single-estate teas, which can be, and in fact should be, ever-changing. The constantly changing nature of tea is its strength – the idea is to have a constant flow of new teas, rather than restocking the same thing over and over.
‘One of the most fascinating things about tea is its mercurial nature,' agrees Darren.' It means we can have an ever-changing diversity of teas arriving fresh from the tea gardens for Fortnum's customers.' Tea connoisseurs thrive on fresh, new teas from the finest selections of the season, and new flavours can be the result of new types of tea bush, changing cultivation methods or elevations and different processing techniques. 'Discovering a new, rare tea from a famous historic estate or a flourishing new tea garden is a great thrill,' agrees Darren. 'Tea is steeped in history but is also an ever-evolving thing and that is where the fun lies - there is always something new to taste, even from our favourite estates the we use every year.'
'Discovering a new, rare tea from a famous historic estate or a flourishing new tea garden is a great thrill. Tea is an ever-evolving thing and that is where the fun lies – there's always something new to taste.'
But variety alone is not enough. Darren’s ultimate goal is to make what Fortnum's can offer unique, with a balance of classic single-estate teas from the major growing areas sitting alongside some unique bespoke teas from specially selected estates. In the retail market, uniqueness and exclusivity is everything.
Fortnum’s already has some unique qualities – its unusually long history (more than 300 years old), the iconic store in the centre of London, and a name that resonates with tea gardens across the world. Darren does trade on the Fortnum’s name to open some doors – which is easier when you’ve been buying tea from the same estate for over a century. ‘We have such a good name at Fortnum’s that estates are keen to work with us,’ he agrees.
‘My passion as a tea-buyer is twofold,’ says Darren, ‘ensuring the absolute consistency and integrity of our existing historic blends while also discovering something new and exciting. Most tea estates have no real contact with people buying their tea - it is a very anonymous process. We are choosing to work directly with the gardens and their owners so that we can make the very best teas for our customers. These special relationships allow us to make bespoke teas, perhaps even using special bushes set aside for Fortnum's. By experimenting with new cultivation, new techniques and looking for the best garden, we hope to bring more exciting new teas to Fortnum's counter next season.’
As well as bringing in new teas, Darren is changing the rare tea range so that it offers the finest seasonal teas at the perfect time of the season. 'By securing small, select or special reserve batches of the highest quality teas, we hope to sell them at the very peak of their flavour, so our customers are tasting the tea as the teamaker on the estate intended it to taste,' he explains.
Darren's vision is to have an ever-changing, diverse and fascinating range of fresh, seasonal, single-estate rare teas passing over the counter at Piccadilly. 'I want our customers to enjoy stopping at the tea counter to try the very latest arrivals,' says Darren. 'In fact, I'd like customers to think that a visit to Fortnum's is not complete unless they have tasted the latest offering from our favourite tea gardens. Many of the tasting events will be showcasing the small batches of the best and rarest teas we have to offer, and once those small batches have gone, they're gone. So it will be a tea boutique, if you like.'
Which brings us on to Darren’s latest project, currently in development - the Fortnum’s Tea Club. ‘The tea club is a very exciting step forward for Fortnum’s,’ says Darren. ‘It’s something we haven’t had before, but as a major tea merchant, we should have one, of course. We’ll offer advice on what to try, based on what customers already like, and we hope it will expand their knowledge of tea and its many varieties.’
What Darren is most looking forward to – apart from having lots of new teas to try – is the chance to get feedback from his customers. ‘We don’t hear a lot from our customers about tea, even though they drink a lot of tea, so they must like it. There hasn’t really been a channel through which they can talk to us. But that’s partly what the tea club is for – for genuine tea-lovers to have somewhere where they can try new teas and exchange opinions, with me and with other tea-drinkers. It’s going to be incredibly useful to hear what they think about each new tea. And they don’t have to live in London – we’ll be sending teas out to them, wherever they are, including special limited edition teas, which they’ll get even before the tea reaches the shop floor.’
'If we really love tea, we should always be looking for a new and interesting tea, rather as we try new wines all the time.'
This might be quite a change for many of us dedicated tea-drinkers; as a nation, Darren says, we tend to find a tea and stick to it, so this is a new approach – a suggestion that people might like to drink several teas throughout the week, depending on the occasion, their mood and the time of day. If we really love tea, we should always be looking for a new and interesting tea, rather as we try new wines all the time.
The expert's choice
Speaking of which, what kind of tea does Darren drink, given that he has an embarrassment of riches to choose from? ‘I prefer stronger teas, so I tend to drink Assam or Assam-based blends. But I like trying different teas of course, and do so all the time. I have half a dozen teas at home at the moment – a couple of Assams, Gunpowder Green Tea, Fortnum’s White Yunnan Tea, Peppermint and, of course, Royal Blend, which is a blend of Assam and Ceylon. I always use loose-leaf and I should make it in a teapot but often don’t – I just use a tea infuser in the cup instead. But it’s still loose-leaf, which is the important thing.’
This is a particular passion for Darren – to encourage more of us to try loose-leaf teas, because he knows we will be amazed by the difference. In the UK, around 96% of the tea we drink is made from teabags – an astonishing figure. ‘I’d love to get more people drinking proper loose-leaf tea every day,’ says Darren. ‘It really is a much better drink.’ Once the Fortnum’s tea club takes off, he may get his wish.